Leinart's starting to find his groove, the offensive line is FINALLY coming together (sort of), and the defense and special teams (Neil Rackers, I'm looking at you) didn't choke away the Seahawks game. For Cardinals fans, a two game winning streak is reason to celebrate. Is is a reason for optimism?
Yes. It is. Edgerrin James has rushed for at least 96 yards in his last three games. Arizona has given up a total of four sacks in the last five games. You could argue that the Rams and Lions are just terrible defenses and not give the offensive line as much credit. However, against a Seahawks team whose front seven is as talented and ferocious as it is, running for 115 yards and a touchdown is impressive. Especially since Edge and the line had struggled all year. You could easily have reversed those stats and said that Edge had gained 96 yards total in his last five games and that the quarterback was getting sacked four times per game and it wouldn't have seemed at all strange.
Matt Leinart is starting to complete 60 percent of his passes on a regular basis. He's throwing more touchdowns. He's throwing fewer interceptions. Overall, he's making better decisions. Against Seattle on Sunday, he called an audible at the line of scrimmage. The result was a five yard touchdown pass to Larry Fitzgerald.
While the defense statistically ranks in the bottom third of the league, they've created a lot of turnovers and forced opposing quarterbacks into bad decisions. They've shown the ability to adapt to suit their opponent, as evidenced by blitzing Chicago like crazy from all directions earlier this year, but playing conservative zone packages against the Seahawks on Sunday. Both strategies worked and exploited the weaknesses in the other teams' game plan. We just won't get into how that Chicago game ended. Too soon.
And, if nothing else, the Cardinals have won three of five since their bye week. After being eliminated from playoff competition halfway through the season, you take what you can get.
At 4-9, they're still not going to make it to the playoffs. But, they are starting to build something.
I realize that a lot of teams win two games in a row. A lot of teams string together games where they don't let up a lot of sacks, their star running back piles up tons of yards, their special teams come through in the clutch, and their defense comes up with that big stop at a critical juncture. It just doesn't happen in the Valley of the Sun. And the teams that experience stuff like this all the time are good football teams. Good football teams have not resided in Arizona.
For the first time in the Dennis Green Era, we have a running back that can carry the load. Marcel Shipp, Emmitt Smith, and Thomas Jones (pre-Chicago) weren't going to get it done. We finally have an offensive line that's at least decent. And, under coach Steve Loney, they're starting to come together as a unit whose whole is better than the sum of its parts. For the first time in the Dennis Green Era, we have a defense that complements the offense. With Bert Berry, Chike Okeafor, and Adrian Wilson, not to mention up-and-comers like Karlos Dansby and Antrel Rolle, the defense has just as much star power as the offense. And, as always in the Dennis Green Era, we have those talented wide receivers.
All of that is important. But, most importantly, heading into next season, this is the first roster the Arizona Cardinals have assembled in the Dennis Green Era that is actually more talented than people give it credit for. After getting burned the past two seasons, no one is going to pick the Cardinals as a "sleeper." No one is going to give them a chance. Everyone in the national media is going to assume they'll finish last in the division because they're the Cardinals.
And they'll have even more ammunition to shoot holes in Arizona's chances if the Bidwells don't extend the Dennis Green Era. Yeah. I said it.
As much as I've criticized the man, he seems to have actually identified the right players to play the right positions in the right schemes. And they're starting to do well. He has also put together an excellent staff that is starting to identify the strengths and weaknesses of their charges and puts those players in the best positions to make plays. It took a long time, I understand. There was a lot of losing involved, I know. He seemed like a complete moron the first half of the season, it's true.
However, the alternatives to not extending the Dennis Green Era are less attractive. If they fire him, the staff gets spread to the four winds. Whoever comes in is going to hire a bunch of "his guys" and the players (newcomers Leinart and James most importantly) will have to learn a new system. An offensive line that's finally showing some signs of life will have to adjust to a new coach and a new scheme. And, a defense that is at long last complementary to the vaunted offense is going to have to re-learn everything it took them three full seasons to grasp.
Worst of all, the Bidwells could simply do nothing. They could let Green coach out the last year of his contract in a "lame duck" situation. And that never ends well for anyone. Look what happened to the Vikings last year. What's happening to the Steelers this year. Even, to a lesser degree, the doubt that surrounded the Cowboys earlier this season. The Cardinals have enough to overcome without adding that into the mix.
If don't extend Green's contract, next season is already lost. If they do, well, then there's reason for optimism.